Airplane Kits


Written by Pat Tritle
Then and now
As seen in the June 2021 issue of Model Aviation.

the photo shows a variety of model kits

01. The photo shows a variety of model kits available throughout the years, including those with printwood and die-cutting. The kits range from the oldest 40-inch wingspan Sig Sinbad to the most recent Guillow’s Piper Cherokee.

the 14 inch wingspan curtiss robin was built from a vintage comet struct o speed kit

02. The 14-inch wingspan Curtiss Robin was built from a vintage Comet Struct-O-Speed kit. The wood quality in this kit was quite good and finished nicely using modern adhesives, acrylic paints, and decals printed from scans of the original paper graphics sheet.

In an email exchange with a modeling friend not long ago, the Sig (formerly Berkeley) Privateer came up. The kit had been built and converted to electric power from its original wet-fuel configuration. From that, the question arose, "What about doing a comparison of the early model designs with the more modern kit offerings?" Having built a number of kits in many modeling veins throughout the years, I thought that was a great idea, and was certainly worth exploring.

I want to make it clear that I stake no claim as a modeling historian, but in my 62 years of cutting balsa and gluing pieces together, I have seen firsthand how modeling has flowed with the advancements in technology. Based on that criteria, and having a number of vintage kits stashed away, let’s take a look into how model kits have evolved throughout the years.

the sterling p 6e hawk is a classic example

03. The Sterling P-6E Hawk is a classic example of the typical die-cut FF kits from the mid-1960s. As with many designs of that era, the model can be built either as rubber- or glow-powered FF, or glow-powered CL.

the comet phantom fury is a typical example of early rubber powered ff sport models

04. The Comet Phantom Fury is a typical example of early rubber-powered FF sport models. Comet also offered numerous scale models, including multiengine rubber FF kits, such as its earlier B-25 in the "Start ’em Flying" series, and the later A-26 Invader and P-38 Lightning kits.

the comet style design concept is shown

05. The Comet-style design concept is shown, along with the kit contents from a typical rubber-powered sport model from back in the day.


Back in the day, I cut my teeth on kits from Comet, Guillow’s, Sterling, Jetco, Carl Goldberg, Scientific, and many others. My first wood kit, built in 1958, was a Carl Goldberg Cessna 180. The model was of all-sheet balsa construction and similar in design to the Top Flite JigTime series.

Comet also offered similar-style kits in the Struct-OSpeed series. My track record at making these old kits fly was not especially good, but the kits were inexpensive, and it taught this young modeler a thing or two about modeling. From there, it was onto the slightly larger "stick-framed" Comet kits, as well as the 17- to 20-something-inch wingspan Guillow’s kits. The design styles of the two were quite different, with the Comet kits generally being the better fliers, although Guillow’s and Sterling were easier to build because of the "keel-and-former" style of fuselage construction.

Comet kits simply built lighter, so they were naturally the better fliers. In modern times, although Comet and Sterling are no longer with us, Guillow’s has gone more toward the Comet style of construction to produce a line of great-flying, laser-cut Free Flight (FF) kits.

Another major difference between the earlier Comet, Guillow’s, and Sterling products that were virtually identical in design style to Guillow’s kits, was that Comet kits were supplied with printwood, where the others were die-cut.

Printwood, for those who are unfamiliar with it, was simply the parts outlines stamped in ink on a balsa sheet. They needed to be cut out by the builder. This could be a tedious process for a kid armed with nothing but a recycled double-edge razor blade broken in two with the back taped to preserve and protect those young fingers!

Another standout with the kits from that era was that the balsa quality often left much to be desired. More often than not, the wood was hard, brittle, and extremely heavy, making it difficult to cut out parts and resulting in heavy models. For those that were die-cut—or better put, "die-crunched,"—the parts often came out of the sheets in pieces. But we persevered, mostly because we simply didn’t know any better.

The In-Between Years

As time marched on, we were able to work our way up to the more sophisticated kits from Flyline, Old Time Model Supply, AeroGraphics, Diels Engineering, Easy Built, and others. Although still die-cut or offered on printwood, the wood quality was much better and made for some good-flying models. That also drifted into the Control Line (CL) realm, which was my first experience in wet-fueled models by way of the 1/2A Cox engines that were mounted on models from Top Flite, Carl Goldberg, Veco, Sig, Berkley, and others.

shown is a typical die cut parts layout

06. Shown is a typical die-cut parts layout found in the early Sterling and Guillow’s FF kits. The wood quality in these early offerings was often questionable, as was the die-cut quality.

this is an example of a modern day laser cut ff kit

07. This is an example of a modern-day, laser-cut FF kit. The wood quality is generally good, providing a great starting point for a contest-level model. These kits also lend themselves to an RC conversion.

modern laser cutting goes a long way in producing a nice kit

08. Modern laser cutting goes a long way in producing a nice kit using goodquality wood. Lasercut parts generally fit better than the earlier printwood or die-cut parts.

some early kits even offered shaped hardwood parts

09. Some early kits even offered shaped hardwood parts and prenotched leading and trailing edges.

some early kits even offered shaped hardwood parts

10. Some early kits even offered shaped hardwood parts and prenotched leading and trailing edges.

By then, CL kits were all die-cut, the wood quality wasn’t bad, and most were relatively easy to build because many featured profile fuselages. We also converted a few FF models to CL with some success. In that realm, many of the Guillow’s and Sterling kits were designed as either rubber- or glow-powered FF or glow-powered CL.

Inching Toward the Present

After RC had made its way into the mainstream, the kit world was going full speed. In those days, wet fuel dominated RC, and the kits were designed to accommodate the three major things that were an unavoidable side effect of glow power: engine vibration, oil soaking, and the sheer brutality of the engine-starting process.

As I recall from building a number of Carl Goldberg, Sig, Berkley, and Sterling RC kits, as well as others from lesser-known companies such as Royal, Eureka, and Ben Buckle, the designs incorporated a lot of wood. As a result, the models were heavy, but generally flew quite well. Many of those kits also featured spun-aluminum or stamped-steel cowlings and "machine-cut" fuselage formers and wing ribs, which made building the kits much easier and quicker than some of the earlier designs.

Creeping Up on the Future

As laser cutting began to make an appearance, many of the early, laser-cut kits were actually converted for laser cutting from hand-drawn plans by tracing the parts for cutting. Unfortunately, with many of the older kits, the parts fit, although not always great, was basically okay. However, when the parts were traced, additional inaccuracies often crept in, so the fit of the parts wasn’t always as good as it could have been.

When CAD-drawn plans came on the scene, it completely revolutionized the kit industry by providing more accurate parts that dramatically improved the parts fit.

Approximately the same time that CAD drafting was taking a foothold in the model airplane design realm, electric power was becoming not only feasible, but also quite successful in the scheme of things. Dealing with electric power also eliminated the three "unavoidable" side effects mentioned earlier that came with the wet-fueled power systems. For that reason, airframes could be designed much lighter using less structure and still maintain their structural integrity. As an added bonus, the park flyer category began to move in a positive direction.

old scientific kits

11. Old Scientific kits, although quite crude, provided shaped balsa fuselages and stamped steel cowlings. The balsa wood in this particular kit is extremely hard and heavy and would present a challenge with sanding the airfoil shape into the wing for a young modeler.

the 1 2a carl goldberg little toot

12. The 1/2A Carl Goldberg Little Toot was built from the upgraded kit now offered by Brodak Manufacturing. There were some changes made from the original design, although it’s basically the same model that was offered in the 1960s.

the 30 inch piper super cruiser was built from the original comet kit

13. The 30-inch Piper Super Cruiser was built from the original Comet Kit. The wood in this kit was quite hard, so the completed model was far heavier than it needed to be. If the original parts patterns were used to cut the parts from contest-quality wood, it could be a competitive flier.

the carl goldberg 20.5 inch wingspan cessna 180

14. The Carl Goldberg 20.5-inch wingspan Cessna 180 was built using plans and patterns from Paul Bradley. Paul has reproduced many of the early Carl Goldberg and JigTime models that go together exactly as the original kits were built.

Disappearing Model Airplane Kits

Another factor that came into play at roughly that time was the introduction of ARFs. ARFs, as well as electric-powered models, have been around for a long time. I recall seeing ads in model magazines for both back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but for various reasons—such as cost and practicality—they really didn’t catch on.

Prebuilt "kits" were expensive and electric components were scarce and heavy, so neither concept really caught on until much later. However, when electric components, such as the venerable old Speed 400 motors, Mini-Olympus gear drives from Como Drill, ESCs, and readily available NiCd batteries, burst upon the scene, we started seeing kits designed specifically for electric power.

Early electric-powered models in the mid-1990s were still slightly hefty by today’s standards, mostly because of the component weights, but the systems actually worked well.

The early electric designs of the day revolutionized RC modeling as we knew it then, and more closely resembled FF rather than RC design. After the components became lighter, less expensive, and more readily available, the entire complexion of the kit industry dramatically changed. At that time, companies such as Dumas, Dare Distributors, Kyosho, Robbe Modellsport, Hobby Lobby International, and others jumped into the electric realm with a number of good, dedicated, electric-powered kit designs.

the 60 inch wingspan luscombe silvaire

15. The 60-inch wingspan Luscombe Silvaire is a classic example of the dedicated scale electric RC park flyer designs now offered by Dare/Brodak. The lineup includes a variety of scale models, including twin and four-engine models.

dumas products offers a line of 35 to 40 inch wingspan

16. Dumas Products offers a line of 35- to 40-inch wingspan, electric-powered three-channel RC kits that can be easily converted to four channels. Many of these kits are also well suited to be flown as jumbo rubber- or electric-powered FF. The company’s 30-inch FF kit line also makes a great starting point for electric RC conversions.

The Cottage Industry

One thing that emerged in a big way during that time was the cottage industry. The strong foothold that the ARF industry had in the marketplace at that time had severely impacted the kit industry, and as a result, the popularity of ARF models ultimately put many of the larger kit companies out of business because of poor sales. However, that opened the door to a relatively new cottage industry to take its place in the market. The short-run capability of laser cutting, provided by small, home-based kit suppliers, allowed them to offer kits that the major manufacturers simply couldn’t provide.

The result was a large number of small companies that could provide short kits, which consisted of plans, laser-cut wood parts, and often included vacuum-formed plastic parts and accessories. Builders provided all of the standard wood, wire, and tubing to complete the models. The result was to provide high-quality kits for dedicated builders that simply weren’t available from the larger, more established kit manufacturers.

Bringing It Into Perspective

Watching the evolution of modeling and kit manufacturers has been a fun trip throughout the years—from the early days of FF to the present day where RC components and power systems have become numerous. It’s hard to keep up with, and the sheer quality of the kits that we build is nothing short of amazing.

From the early days of cutting printwood, to die-cutting, and eventually laser cutting, building models has become much easier over time. Because of the availability of small, low-cost components, we’re able to build smaller, lighter-weight models that can be flown nearly anywhere. Another advantage to all of this is that we’re not limited to only dedicated RC kits. We can now convert FF kits to RC, something that was neither practical nor affordable a few short years ago for an average modeler.

The best part is that because of the internet and cottage industries, as well as a few kit manufacturers such as Dumas, Dare/Brodak Manufacturing, Stevens AeroModel, and others, almost anything is possible. As a result, a kit builder has a plethora of sources where high-quality kits are available for virtually any kind of FF, CL, or RC model desired, with nearly endless possibilities for conversions. For those who prefer wet fuel, the possibilities are still at a premium with kits that are available from Balsa USA, Horizon Hobby, Tower Hobbies, and a number of other manufacturers.

For those who still enjoy larger models that fall well outside of the park flyer realm but are leaning toward electric power, the old kits are easily convertible because of the availability of high-quality power systems that will fly anything that can be flown with wet fuel.

When you stop to think about it, this is really a great time to be involved in nearly any facet of aeromodeling.



(781) 245-5255

Horizon Hobby/Top Flite Models/Tower Hobbies

(800) 338-4639

Sig Manufacturing

(641) 623-5154

Dumas Products

(520) 623-3742

Dare Distributors/Brodak Manufacturing

(724) 966-2726

Kyosho America

(949) 454-8854

Robbe Modellsport

Stevens AeroModel

(719) 387-4187

Balsa USA

(800) 225-7287

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I failed to find out what you mean by ARF. Can you explain? Thanks

Hi Daniel. ARF stands for almost ready to fly. This means that the airplane is almost fully built and covered. Most of the work that you will need to do has to do with the RC gear and installing an engine or motor. .


Hi John. I think this might be it: Good luck!

I made many a Comet, and Guillows kit. That autogyro from Scientific looks really great. I was pretty young when I was given three kits from Comet. It took a lot of patience to cut out all those parts. It wasn't until I was through most of one kit when I realized that if you cut the parts out a little big and sanded them to the printed lines, it was much easier and parts came out much better. But those kits were so inexpensive...a few dollars, and don't forget the Ambroid glue. CA glue hadn't come around yet.

Pat Enjoyed your article on old and new kits. I built and flew (with various degrees of success) a few of them way back when. If I get the time I would like to build a modern kit.

How could you have overlooked Cleveland kits?? My first was a Great Lakes biplane with a 20-inch WS

Wonderful article brought back fond memories, as I have been modeling for 71 years, the flying part started to diminish with the modernity of radios, back some time ago you could purchase a complete system and today, you have to select piece by piece and put it together, very confusing for me and no guidance offered for older modelers. I still have quite a few old models, from very old to somewhat new, and all are incredible as they sport the personality of their designers. Thanks for your article

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